What dismal Oxford Street can learn from the rest of Europe

Oxford Street
Once a symbol of Cool Britannia, London's busiest shopping street is no longer a place to linger - In Pictures

People say it was the pandemic that did it, but it’s just as easy to blame Topshop. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, the brand’s flagship store stood just outside the entrance to Oxford Circus tube station and was the epitome of Cool Britannia. At one point, Kate Moss posed stock-still in the window – a real-life mannequin advertising her big-money collaboration – while hundreds of wannabe Kate Mosses flocked to the store to browse hipster jeans, simultaneously hoping to attract the attention of the talent scouts, handing out business cards to next big things.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and it’s a different matter. Topshop finally shut its doors in 2021 but, by then, the brand’s lustre had faded and any notion of Cool Britannia had disappeared from London’s busiest shopping street.

Souvenir shops and “American candy” stores had already moved into vacant premises further down the road, to the dismay of Westminster Council, which launched a crackdown on the latter in 2023. Two years ago, a Reddit thread entitled “Is Oxford Street the worst place on the planet?” detailed the road’s failings in all their glory, from the traffic fumes to the megaphone-wielding evangelists.

Elsewhere in Europe, however, shopping streets are thriving. Retail sales grew in Spain, Portugal and Italy during 2023, according to data from Oxford Economics. In Madrid and Lisbon, retailers are finding it difficult to find empty shops to rent in order to sell their wares. It’s a far cry from Oxford Street, where vacancy levels stand at 16.9 per cent, up from 4.5 per cent in 2019. So what can we learn from other major cities?

Striding ahead

Oxford Street experienced the second highest footfall of the major commercial streets in Europe in 2023, according to data from Cushman Wakefield and MyTraffic (second only to Madrid’s Gran Via) – but it isn’t currently a place to linger. Buses plough up and down at a snail’s pace while pedestrians stride at top speed, seemingly on their way to anywhere else. By contrast, some of mainland Europe’s best thoroughfares are perfect for a leisurely wander.

In Rome, stretches of popular streets shut at weekends so pedestrians can concentrate on la passeggiata. The 1.5km Via del Corso has been improved to allow for better meandering.

“Italians love shopping – if only window shopping – it is one of the main leisure pursuits in Italy,” says a spokesperson for Enit (Italy’s Agenzia Nazionale del Turismo). “The Via del Corso has been improved by being partly closed to traffic and fully pedestrianised. This is to encourage the public to stroll and do window shopping in the numerous shops that line the street”.

Rome's Via del Corso
Rome's Via del Corso combines the city's historical architecture with upscale brands - Alamy

Meanwhile, in Madrid, a mix of high-end, chain and independent retailers attract a variety of moochers to the Gran Via. Wow Concept, which opened in 2022, is the brainchild of the ex-president of El Corte Inglés and sells Spanish designer and independent brands amid museum-worthy interiors, including a sky-blue candle department complete with floating clouds and gigantic, futuristic sculptures in the beauty hall.

Building better

There’s something else about Rome’s Via del Corso that’s rather spectacular. As in much of the city, a mooch along the road is like a trip into the history books. The effect is heightened by gleaming facades with sensitive signage – and exterior grandeur is echoed inside the shops.

At Zara’s flagship store in the beautiful Palazzo Bocconi, the atrium reveals four floors punctuated by soaring columns and hemmed in gilded bannisters. Meanwhile, Italian flags wave from romantic balconies above Ray Ban and Intimissimi.

Many of Europe’s stores are constrained by legislation preventing changes to their exteriors and interiors, which is why Madrid’s Gran Via maintains an air of times gone by. It’s the same story in Lisbon. “We have two or three streets that are protected, including the Rua Augusta,” says José Galvão, head of retail for the estate agent Savills in Portugal. “You have to reinstate what was in the time of the Marquis de Pombal in the 18th century. The municipality wants to keep the facades the same as when they were created – not only that but the interiors too”.

Gran Via
Wow Concept is one of Gran Via's unique shops - Alamy

Oxford Street has its fair share of spectacular buildings too, including Grade II-listed Selfridges. But, aside from the famed department store, some of them are currently dulled by grime-covered facades or insensitive shop-fronts.

Instead of looking back, retailers and investors are gazing into the future for improvements. VR entertainment district Outernet London, which opened in 2023 next to Tottenham Court Road station, already claims to be “London’s most visited attraction”. It’s thanks in part to the free immersive exhibition The Butterfly Trail, where visitors use smartphones to trigger animations on giant screens.

French connection

Oxford Street isn’t the only major artery to be in a state of flux. Another famous street has lost its mojo of late. The Champs-Élysées, once Paris’s grandest boulevard, is currently undergoing a €250 million makeover to restore it to its former glory.

It aims to do away with fume-tinged facades and polluted air in favour of prettier terraces and a greening scheme that will create “an extraordinary garden”, according to Paris’s Mayor Anne Hidalgo. CGI images show shops flanked by blossoming boulevards and a playground hidden between the trunks.

Paris's iconic Champs-Élysées is undergoing a €250 million makeover

Work will pause for the Olympic Games and be complete by 2030, according to the authorities. “Improved and refurbished, the Champs-Élysées will become the historic place for promenading that it was on its creation,” according to the official website of Paris.

What’s next for Oxford Street?

Times appear to be changing for Oxford Street too. In 2025, Ikea will open on the old Topshop site, while another old favourite, HMV, has returned to its historic spot near Bond Street. Writing in Estate Gazette, Dee Corsi, CEO of a retail partnership called the New West End Company, spoke of a broader range of visitors that included “office workers, diners, leisure seekers and culture vultures”.

The eastern stretch of Oxford Street, long considered the very worst stretch near Tottenham Court Road, saw 12 new openings and a 19 per cent year-on-year increase in footfall in 2023. Meanwhile, the £90 million Oxford Street Programme from City of Westminster council is set to bring wider pavements, more greenery and improved pavements, with construction starting in the autumn of 2024.

Whether all this will make Oxford Street a pleasant place to while away some time remains to be seen – though London already has shopping success stories. These include Covent Garden, which has experienced a few ebbs and flows since Inigo Jones designed its piazza in the 17th century.

After a period packed with chain stores and big-brand coffee shops, it’s currently experiencing another renaissance. Expensive perfumeries pump their products onto its cobbled pavements while tourists lounge on restaurant terraces or watch street performers do magic tricks. Let’s hope some of their fairy dust is carried slightly north in the near future.